Research - Clarence's trip to Australia or New Zealand THAT NEVER WAS

Skribita de Marcus Bicknell on .

unidentified tall shipWriters since the death of Clarence Bicknell in 1918, including my uncle Peter Bicknell from who I inherited the Bicknell Collection, persist in saying that Clarence Bicknell travelled to Australia and New Zealand. I remind all students of the man that there is NO EVIDENCE THAT HE WENT and much evidence that he never had a period of time in which to do so.

As a member of the research team under the late Valerie Lester for her MARVELS: The Life of Clarence Bicknell (2018) I compiled an extensive list of the dates and places recorded in Clarence's letters, diaries, sketchbooks and water colours. This list of over 2,300 entries is an Excel spreadsheet available to researchers on request. The only period when he could possibly have gone (in his whole life) was in the second half of 1879 when "he dropped out of sight".

My list of dates and places records a sketch by Clarence in his sketchbook CL111 in Bussage (near Stroud in the UK, where he sometimes visited) dated 27th June 1879. On 21st September 1879 he is apparently in Broadlands, the religious think-tank retreat, according to a letter from Clarence to Mrs Cowper Temple, the Broadlands organiser. However, the date on this letter is only a pencilled date, a hand other than Clarence's notes Valerie. Maybe this date is wrong. Then there is nothing until 22 December 1879, a sketch of a monastery near Nice in our sktechbook CL116 by Clarence. If indeed there are 6 months empty (not two periods of three months), could he have got to Australia and New Zealand and back?

clipper routeNo. The clipper ships bound for Australia and New Zealand would call at a variety of ports. A ship sailing from Plymouth to Sydney, for example, would cover around 13,750 miles (22,130 km); a fast time for this passage would be around 100 days ( Other web sources say the quickest at the end of the 19th century would be three months. If Clarence hitched a lift on one of the remaining boats of his late father's fleet (Clarence's brother Percy had stepped into their father's shoes at Langton & Bicknell, the whale oil business suffering from the adoption of gas then electricity for town lighting, and did not liquidate it till 1907) it would have taken nearly four months each way. So are we to believe that Clarence travelled all that way and came straight back again? No, he would not have done that because his main interest was not the travel but the botany and the sights when he got to the destination.

For the record, here are the mentions of Australia and New Zealand in MARVELS, the mentions which are tangentuial to Clarence's own story but which have been misinterpreted...

  • MARVELS p.7... When Elhanan started work with John Langton, whaling was at its height and the Pacific trade was opening up. Though the range of the sperm whale was world-wide, the hunting grounds off the east coast of Australia and around New Zealand were particularly abundant, and that is where Langton and Bicknell concentrated their efforts.
  • MARVELS p.8... Lucinda passed on to Clarence a passion for drawing wildflowers, playing the piano and singing. She may also have kindled in him an interest in foreign travel by reading aloud from the letters of her six brothers and one sister who variously travelled as far as the West Indies, Latvia, India, Australia, New Zealand and Mauritius.
  • MARVELS p.74... Clarence also planted two Moreton Bay figs (Ficus macrophylla), descended from the first specimen brought to Italy from Australia by Lord Howe
  • MARVELS p.154... Clarence and Bingham had much to talk about – the botany of the area, the rock carvings, and the local ants, for this was the same Bingham Crowther who had probably provided Clarence with the specimens of the Australian ant named for him: Iridomyrmex bicknelli. Clarence gave specimens of this ant and others to his friend Oreste Mattirolo (1856–1947), Professor of Botany and Director of the Botanical Garden at Bologna from 1894 to 1900, who in turn handed them on to Carlo Emery (1848–1925), Professor of Zoology at the University of Bologna, who wrote up the ant and named it after Clarence in gratitude for the gift.

Here are two further mentions of the putative destinations with Valerie's conclusions, supported by my work, that Clarence did not make a truip to Australia and New Zealand.

  • MARVELS p.51... Dreaming of buying the Villa Rosa from the Fanshawes, Clarence returned to the Italian Riviera sometime in the autumn of 1879, after many months of spiritual reflection during which he dropped out of sight. It is tempting to believe that he might have travelled to New Zealand during that time, but a New Zealand trip is hearsay and impossible to nail down (See Chapter 16), and there are simply not enough uninterrupted months to allow for such a long trip in 1879. Nor do we have any sketchbooks or diaries to use as conclusive evidence for such a trip at any point.
  • MARVELS p.186... Ceylon is known for its gems, especially rubies and sapphires – Farrer goes on for pages about them – and Mrs Ferguson would have helped Clarence pick out a truly gorgeous necklace. He owed it to Mercede for having taken her husband away for ten weeks. It seems likely that the Fergusons sealed their friendship with Clarence by giving him the Maori jade pendants of which he was so fond. As the Fergusons had travelled to New Zealand on leave from Ceylon,282 a gift of jade pendants to rockmad Clarence seems quite natural. Margaret Berry, who inherited them, attached a note to the pendants saying that he acquired them in Ceylon; but if Margaret were mistaken about their provenance, they become a shred of evidence to justify Peter Bicknell’s mention – often repeated by others without evidence – that Clarence himself had travelled to New Zealand. However, the team researching this biography has for years been scouring ships’ records and botanical records in New Zealand for mention of his name but have yielded nothing, nor did Clarence ever refer to such a journey.

I have also noted some other reference to "Bicknell" in Australia or New Zealand. These might have caused confusion for some amateurs, but they are clearly people other than Clarence Bicknell 1842-1918.

  • Clarence Ralph Bicknell of Birkenhead, New Zealand, died 15 September 1916 in the trenches in Europe. WW1 Lance Corporal/Military AWMM
    New Zealand Rifle Brigade, 2nd Battalion AWMM. Several web references.
  • Clarence travelled to Egypt in 1889 on a boat bound eventually for Australia. He disembarked at Alexandria. MARVELS chapter 8
  • Arthur C. Bicknell wrote the book Travel and adventure in Northern Queensland, published in London by Longmans, Green in 1895. and elsewhere. The subject matter would have appealed to our Clarence ... "Method of tree-climbing with aid of kamin; Nollanolla described; p.58; Collection &? preparation of ants eggs &? beetles as food; p.95; Contact with natives on Gilbert R., notes on scarification, fire-making; General remarks on lack of clothing, role of women, diseases &? cures; method of cooking; burial customs in detail cremation in some areas; fear of spirits; cannibalism practised; duties of women outlined Mitchell R. area; Gilbert R. - huts described, smoking, songs, basketry, medicine men, fishing &? weapons; Prince of Wales Is. - scarification of bodies, exhibition of spearthrowing."
  • Most recently, in 2018, it was reported that another Australian plant was found by Claudio Littardi in the garden of the Museo Bicknell. I quoted above from MARVELS "Clarence also planted two Moreton Bay figs (Ficus macrophylla), descended from the first specimen brought to Italy from Australia by Lord Howe." Now we read "The mysterious tree in the garden of the Bicknell museum in Bordighera: discovered a rare example of Apollonia barbujana. It is an endemic tree of the flora of Macaronesia, known as the ebony of the Canaries and widespread in the islands of the archipelago, with the exclusion of Lanzarote. The tree, whose age is estimated in over a hundred years, has remained hidden in the garden in the discreet company of the gigantic Ficus macrophylla (Australia), in close contact with a Lagunaria patersonia (Australia) and near a Casuarina equietifolia (New Zealand) and a contorted Australian Malaleuca".

I would urge researchers, especially those with new material like the Museo Bicknell's unpublished "Lotto 2017" collection of Clarence's diaries, letters and sketches, to make them available or to analyse them for details of the Australia/New Zealand trip. Otherwise, there is NO EVIDENCE Clarence went to Australia or New Zealand and such remarks should be taken out of displays and literature.

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